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The Craft of Marquetry

The Craft of Marquetry Introduction to Marquetry

From the strength and solidity of basic timber come the incredibly thin sheets of veneer that are needed for the craft of marquetry. The glorious variations of grain that are revealed may be used to create delicate, stylised pictures and beautifully balanced, symmetrical designs.

Origins of Marquetry

This fascinating art of decorative woodworking has been used to embellish many items of furniture, panels, frames, screens and boxes – and many other wooden artifacts – for centuries.  
During the Renaissance period (14th-16th centuries) Craftworkers used a technique called ‘intarsia’, which is a form of mosaic woodwork. Another method of decorating the surface of wood, known as ‘inlay’, was also practised.  

For this, other materials – such as bone, ivory, shell and precious gems and metals – were used in addition to wood veneers to create designs of outstanding beauty.  

Also at this time, strange new woods were being brought from Europe and the Americas, as well as the East and the Indies. Often remarkably beautiful, these woods meant that the craft of applied wood decoration flourished. Marquetry reached its height in the seventeenth century and continued to be a popular art form until the end of the nineteenth century. 

Basic techniques of Marquetry

Veneers are cut from logs, either by slicing them extremely thinly – most marquetry veneers are only about three quarters of a millimeter thick – or by rotary cutting method which is similar to unrolling a carpet. The veneers obtained may vary from the plain and simple to the richly patterned and coloured, depending on the species and the part of the tree from which they are cut.

Other striking grain patterns are obtained by slicing logs where the trunk forms into branches – ‘the crotch’ – or at the base, known as the ‘stump’ or ‘butt’. Many beautifully patterned veneers are obtained by slicing through ‘burls’, which are those large, irregular, knotty growths often seen on tree trunks.  

Because marquetry veneers are sliced so thinly, it is possible to cut them into free flowing shapes with a sharp knife. This, along with a developed eye for veneer selection, forms the basis of the art of marquetry. Once simple freehand cutting skills have been mastered it is possible for marquetarians to experience the enjoyment of ‘painting pictures’, or ‘designing patterns’ with beautiful coloured woods.  

Plants, animals, landscapes, seascapes, still-life, portraits, floral and abstract designs can all be created in marquetry.  

The initial outline drawing supplies the master pattern for the final picture. Therefore, its best to avoid shapes which are very fine or intricate; clean, easy flowing lies are simpler to cut. When constructing the design, the marquetarian may exercise a bit of artistic license by omitting any tricky detail in order to simplify the design, as each line represents a knife cut.  

A variety of techniques are used for the cutting of veneers. Because marquetry veneers are so thin a craft knife, such as an ‘X’ Acto type or a Swann-Morton surgeons scalpel, is the ideal tool for the job.  

However, depending on the skill of the craftsman, it is possible to cut veneers with a fret saw or on a marquetry donkey.  
The traditional marquetry donkey has a pair of vertical jaws which are operated by a foot treadle to hold and release the veneer. This means that the marquetarian can adjust the veneer before it is cut by a fine horizontal saw blade that moves backwards and forwards.  

All of these methods are ideal for cutting through several veneers at once. They also make it possible for the marquetarian to execute extremely fine and complicated work, for which a great deal of cutting control is needed.  

There are various ways of building up a picture out of veneers, but the most widely used technique is called ‘the window method’. The picture or design is cut out piece by piece and assembled rather like a jigsaw puzzle. The veneer shapes are taped together as they are cut and stuck to the base board.  

The design is traced onto the background veneer (the largest piece of veneer in the design). If the design does not have an overall background, the design is traced on to a piece of stout card known as a ‘waster’.  
Each shape in the design is cut out of the background or waster one piece at a time. This leaves a hole or ‘window’ after the piece is cut out, through which the marquetarian selects the piece of veneer which suits the design best.  

The window is then used as a template and traced around on to the underlying piece of veneer, which is cut out. The design is then progressively built up piece by piece.  

The best baseboards or groundwork on which to stick marquetry is usually a man made material such as plywood. This provides a solid and stable base that is not prone to movement and warping. When the work is finally assembled and glued on to the baseboard, it is finished by removing any tape remnants and scraping away surplus glue. The surface is then sanded to a smooth, fine finish and further enhanced with a wax polish or suitable proprietary finish.  

It is traditional to frame marquetry pictures with a contrasting veneer border – a dark veneer is often the best choice – to offset and compliment the design. These stylish framing borders are yet another opportunity to add artistic and creative elements to the design.

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